Author Jeffrey Pfeffer believes power is addictive – in a psychological and physical sense. Historian John Acton coined the phrase “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Scientists claim this is true.
Absolute and unchecked power, is intoxicating. That’s from Nayef Al-Rodhan. Its effects occur at the cellular and neurochemical level. They are manifested behaviourally in a variety of ways, ranging from heightened cognitive functions to lack of inhibition, poor judgement, extreme narcissism, perverted behaviour, and gruesome cruelty.
The primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power that is known today is dopamine. The same chemical transmitter responsible for producing a sense of pleasure. Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive “high” in much the same way as drug addiction. Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power. And this too at all cost.
Dopamine is responsible for producing a sense of pleasure and helps us to retain information and engage in reward-driven learning. It is released in certain parts of the brain by rewarding experiences, such as achievement, food consumption, and other pleasures of life. However it is also produced in behaviours that may be unhealthy and life-threatening. Either way, dopamine release is what makes people want to re-engage in these activities.
In more accountable societies, checks and balances exist to avoid the inevitable consequences of power. Yet, in cases where leaders possess absolute and unchecked power, changes in leadership and transitions to more consensus-based rule are unlikely to be smooth. Gradual withdrawal of absolute power is the only way to ensure that someone will be able to accept relinquishing it.
Human beings are characterised by “emotional amoral egoism”. Humans are emotionally driven and, our moral compass is malleable and heavily influenced by circumstances, survival value, and our perceived “emotional self-interest”. Emotions, however, are not immaterial: they are neurochemically-mediated and physical in so far as they have neurochemical correspondents.
Dopamine activates a reward system that has been essential to our survival as a species, encouraging us to return to behaviour that is essential for life. This process is what Nayef says as the “neurochemical gratification principle” (NGP), where even the expectation of a reward is believed to function in a similar way to reward itself.
Dictators are, therefore, more likely to appear in situations where checks and balances are not present or consolidated. Brutality and a lack of regard for citizens of countries governed by leaders with absolute power will tend to be the rule, regardless of the psychological state of the ruler. Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon, for example, all appeared incapable of empathy and of comprehending the value of human life. They condemned thousands to death in suicidal military campaigns.
Absolute power can also lead people to believe that a spiritual force is guiding them even within established democracies. For example, former US president George Bush told people that God wanted him to wage war against Iraq. His ally in the Iraq War, and former British prime minister Tony Blair, is also thought to have believed that God wanted him to take the country into war to combat evil.
The certainty that such leaders seem to possess is a symptom of extremely high levels of dopamine. Not only are powerful individuals likely to be egocentric, but also paranoid. The latter may be a consequence of self-deception in the face of conflicting advice from close associates.
The neurochemistry of power has implications for politics and for political change. Since power activates our neuronal reward systems in the brain, people in positions of unchecked power are likely to lack the self-awareness required to act with restraint or to seek a consensual form of decision making.
Since sudden withdrawal of power like the abrupt withdrawal from drugs produces uncontrollable cravings, those who possess power, are highly unlikely to give it up willingly, smoothly and without human and material loss. We see that in Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un and other dictators (although Trump may dispute this postulate and describe himself as a stable genius).
What about Malaysia?
We saw that playing-out in the past week. There were no shortage of potential PMs. It is something most politicians aspire to – even though they state officially they are doing it “for the nation” or “to unite the people”. So some people do imagine that we the people lack basic intelligence. If they were truly for the people, then we would have MPs focused on those living in PPR flats, the homeless, the refugees, the poor fishermen and farmers, the orphans, the marginalised and the down-trodden. They would do social action program, find monetary support/resources for the disadvantaged, bursaries or scholarships for deserving students and employment opportunities for graduates. Instead, it was all about race, religion and royalty. What a load of crap!
1. The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change, Nayef Al-Rodhan, The Conversation.
2. Power is an additive drug, Jeffrey Pfeffer, www.fastcompany.com
3. Power really does corrupt as scientists claim it’s as addictive as cocaine, www.dailymail.co.uk (28 April 2012)